Published: 00:01, 08 September 2017
The first “new” grammar school in decades opens its doors to 120 pupils today, after a lengthy campaign by parents in Sevenoaks.
The pupils will be taught at a new annexe in Sevenoaks, which is being managed by the Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School in Tonbridge.
But the opening will be a bittersweet victory for those who want to see more selective schools. The government was forced to abandon its plan to lift the ban on new grammars after the election.
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And the satellite of the school will only be able to accept girls despite the original campaign being based around a shortage of places for boys in the area.
The annexe has cost £11m and has 25 classrooms, sports and school hall as well as a lecture theatre. Over the coming years, the number of pupils will grow to 450.
The opening comes more than four years after a campaign was launched by parents Sarah and Andrew Shilling to create grammar places in Sevenoaks, so children did not have to travel long distances to attend school.
The county council came on board after a petition signed by 2,600 people triggered a debate at County Hall in 2011.
Protracted wrangling around where the site could go, along with questions around the legality of the scheme, led to lengthy delays but the government eventually gave the green light in 2015.
The then education secretary Nicky Morgan emphasised that her approval did not breach the ban on new grammar schools and was justified as it was addressing a shortfall of available selective school places caused by population growth.
David Bower, chairman of governors, said the annexe marked a significant moment.
He said: “We are absolutely delighted. There are a lot of over-subscribed grammars in west Kent and what we are doing is addressing a shortage of places. I am only disappointed that we cannot do the same for boys.”
He said the school had received more applications than there were available places, signalling that the annexe was already proving its worth.
Those sentiments were echoed by Cllr Roger Gough, KCC cabinet member for education.
However, he said any future expansion plans by other grammars would probably only be supported if they addressed genuine needs for extra places caused by population growth.
“It is a significant moment because it is something the county council and local parents have committed to for a long time.
"It tackles an historic anomaly as Sevenoaks is the only major town without grammar provision despite there being a high number of boys and girls who attend selective schools.
“Clearly there was a need to address the issue and at the same time build in more provision."
He said KCC remained committed to finding a way to create more places for boys.
He added: “There are discussions around that all the time and hopefully it is something we can achieve on that site. Clearly, we’d like to see that balanced out.”
However, campaigners opposed to selection and grammar schools were critical.
Joanne Bartley, chairman of Kent Education Network, said: “It is wrong of Kent County Council to spend £19 million of council tax payers’ money on this project; one entirely based on a local pressure group with a petition and political motivation.”